April 16, 2014

The maths and science deficit

The president has confirmed Cabinet’s approval of the recruitment of foreign teachers to tutor local students in maths and science, to fill that long identified gap in the delivery of the education curriculum. This decision, of course, is subject to the approval of the Teaching Service Commission. It appears that, after a Herculean effort to facilitate the production of these much needed teachers at the Cyril Potter College of Education (CPCE) and the University of Guyana, the Education Ministry had hit a brick wall.

The pull factors (not to mention outright recruitment) of trained maths and science teachers by other Caricom countries and the United States were cited. Based on the salary scales prevalent in those societies, especially when compared to ours, discretion might have proven the better part of valour. The Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) has raised the issue of the remuneration package that would be offered to entice the desired foreign teachers. Inter alia, that body has also questioned the local training programme spearheaded by the National Centre for Educational Research Development (NCERD), CPCE, and UG, suggesting these institutions have failed.

I believe that this is a short-sighted view, and it does not take into consideration the wider issues behind the identified shortage. The U.S., where money is surely not lacking, like Guyana, also has a shortage of teachers in what have been dubbed the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. On the other hand, China and India – even when they were mired in poverty – have been churning out like cookies teachers and graduates in these subjects. In fact, most of the developed countries source a good portion of their maths and science manpower from India and China.

Money counts, but there is another factor that helps to form a vicious cycle. There are not enough STEM teachers here and in the U.S., because there are not enough students excited about the STEM stream. It is not surprising, therefore, that the pool of STEM trainee teachers is correspondingly small. When these teachers enter the school system, they invariably promote the idea that the subjects are “hard”, and the vicious circle continues.

Studies in the U.S. indicate that the school system, teachers and, most importantly, parents all have to be supportive of the need to acquire STEM teachers, and work in unison to turn the tide in their favour. The school system has to move away from the “teach” to the “test” approach overall, but especially in the STEM subjects. The hands-on approach, supported by laboratories, is crucial for success in this area. Concepts and application, not cramming, excite the young, enquiring mind. The ministry has already begun moving from the focus on standardised testing, and this has to be supported by improvement in lab facilities.

Teachers and parents will have to convey to students the fact that careers based on the STEM subjects – especially in the area of technology – deliver the greatest financial rewards. In Guyana, there is an inordinate rush by students to enter the “business” stream. They will have to be informed that there will be no businesses if those are not supported by STEM knowledge. Even the financial windfall in derivatives, which brought untold wealth to Wall Street, was based on the innovations of maths “quants” (quantitative analysts).

Parents are the critical cog. Students in high-scoring maths and science countries like China and India feel parental, peer, and community pressure to achieve high academic goals. STEM subjects do need more focus, and parents will have to be educated about this, and be encouraged to guide and help their children accordingly.

In the U.S., there was the suggestion that teachers of the STEM subjects be better paid. In 2009, the U.S. National Education Association, which represents teachers, argued against such a proposal. Their argument was that “Simply being a teacher of a hard-to-staff subject does not equate with effective instruction.” We are not suggesting that teachers ought not to be paid more in Guyana. But, even more crucially, an enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and maths engendered in our students will prove more effective in the end.